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Wednesday May 06, 2009

Long-running property disputes dog Vatican-Israel ties

VATICAN CITY, May 6, 2009 (AFP) - Israeli and Vatican lawyers have been disputing ownership of land occupied by a Catholic charity in Jerusalem for 35 years -- just one of many longstanding property issues that form an uneasy backdrop to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel next week.

The Hospice of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul cares for scores of Palestinians with severe physical and mental handicaps and operates a kindergarten for disadvantaged children.

But Israeli developers have long been interested in the sprawling site sitting on prime real estate just outside the Old City Christian quarter walls.

Although a 1993 bilateral agreement defines its convent and church as "holy places" entitled to protection, successive Israeli governments have refused to give the accord the force of law.

Signed on December 30, 1993, the so-called Fundamental Agreement enshrined a historic rapprochement between Israel and the Vatican and set up a joint commission to resolve the Church's financial and real estate issues, notably in territory occupied by the Jewish state after 1967.

"Nothing is concluded, it is just an ongoing discussion about these vital, crucial and sensitive issues," said Pierbattista Pizzaballa, "custodian" of Church sites in Israel.

The joint commission, which had been asked to complete its work within two years of the 1993 accord's signing, did not meet at all between 1994 and 2004.

Resumed in 2004, the negotiations have sputtered along. Last month two meetings took place in "an atmosphere of great cordiality and in a spirit of cooperation," according to a joint communique.

The second meeting on April 30 in Jerusalem produced "meaningful progress", the participants said, but the next meeting will not take place until December 10, at the Vatican.

The Holy See is also seeking recognition of rights, including a blanket tax waiver enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church as Israel came into being in 1948.

As an essential part of normalising relations with Israel, the Church is claiming restitution of lost religious property including notably the Cenacle, believed to be the site of the Last Supper.

It is on the second floor of the ancient Mount Zion building that also houses King David's tomb.

"There is ongoing negotiation between Holy See and Israel in order to give a juridical frame to the life of the Church," Pizzaballa told AFP.

"There is no conclusion, just a discussion about the role, the position of the holy places, among them of course, also the Cenacle and others, that are vital for the local community but also for the universal Church," he lamented.

Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the International Jewish Committee on Inter-religious Consultations, said the 1993 agreement has remained unratified because some think "the price for Israel for accommodating the Vatican on these issues is not worth the diplomatic gain." - AFP




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